Lute-playing folk singers
In the advertisements, there is nothing to indicate that the concerts of Sven Scholander (1860-1936) and Robert Kothe (1869-1944) were in a different category than the others. But we would not classify their folk songs with lute accompaniment as classical music today.
Scholander gave four concerts in 1907 that were in Bechstein Hall, which held about 500 people. He was described as a “Swedish troubadour” who accompanied himself on a lute and chatted with the audience between traditional Swedish folk songs. It was the lute that first caught my attention. What kind of a lute was that??
The Swedish Lute
There are more pictures than information about Scholander, and these pictures raise more questions about the instrument he played. I found out that, first of all, “lute” was used interchangeably with “guitar.” Second, there is a type of lute called the Swedish lute, and Scholander modified it with guitar strings and tuning.1Josef Zuth, Handbuch der Laute und Gitarre (Wien: Ludwig Doblinger, 1926), 249. According to Kenneth Sparr, Scholander made modifications to the old Swedish lute, and is now known as the Scholander-luta or Brock-luta. He modified the strings to six on the fingerboard and six diapasons, changed the tuning from A major to normal guitar tuning, and replaced the gut strings with metal strings.2Kenneth Sparr, “Remarks on an Unnoticed Seventeenth-Century French Lute in Sweden, the Swedish Lute (Svenskluta or Swedish Theorbo) and Conversions of Swedish Lutes,” The Galpin Society Journal 62 (2009): 209-07. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20753635.
Sven Scholander (1860-1936)
Reception in Germany, Vienna, and London
When Sven Scholander began touring Germany in the 1890s, the reviews were mixed. Critics doubted this kind of performance was appropriate for the concert hall. Scholander’s voice was criticized, and the music’s value was deemed “worthless for the most part.” However, it had to be admitted that the audience loved it. Scholander also had a fan in Kaiser Wilhelm, whose enthusiasm for old folk songs and for Nordic bards was well established.
In Kiel, in 1896, he was judged a curiosity, and grouped with the “Original American Fisk Jubilee Singers,” who had also been in town: “We are not convinced this kind of music making belongs in the concert hall, but there were many who were transported.”3Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1896): 467.
In Dresden the music he performed was described as “in no way artistically outstanding,” and although he was able to create a scene with humor, “much of what he sings is worthless.”4“Von den fernerer Concerten sei das des Volkssängers aus dem Norden, Sven Scholander, erwähnt, der mit der Laute in der Hand durch die Lande zieht und ganz eigenartige Leistungen producirt. Sie sind keineswegs künstlerisch hervorragend. Der Sänger verfügt weder über gute Stimmittel noch über eine gute Ausbildung der Stimme; das, was er singt, ist meist wertlos. Aber wie er es vorträgt, ist so eigenartig, dass er vielen Beifall finden musste und auch thatsächlich fand. Er singt Carl Michael Bellmanns altschwedische anakreontische Lieder so charakteristisch und humorvoll, wie Hellmann sie selbst nur gesungen haben kann. Alles wirkt unmittelbar, der Vortrag wird zu einer ganzen Scenenschilderung.” Neue musikalische Presse, 1896. In Karlsruhe the following year, Arthur Smolian reported that Scholander sang Swedish, Spanish, French, old German folksongs, Romanzen, and Lieder. It was a kind of Variété-Bühne production, and his voice wasn’t good; but it is an art that he practices, he conceded.5Musikalisches Wochenblatt (1897): 427.
His debut in Vienna in 1897 was dubbed a “Tingel-Tangel in the Prater.” Critics pointed out the incongruity of the formal concert context and the “folksy” way the performer presented himself:
“The first appearance here of the ‘Swedish Troubadour’ was announced with enormous publicity, with a dictum from Kaiser Wilhelm II, whom the original singer apparently especially delighted, quoted repeatedly in the papers and on concert programs, in order to attract a big audience. That did come to pass, and it was an exceedingly elegant company appearing on 27 March 1897, dressed in the most dazzling toilettes, drawn to Sven Scholander’s first lieder soirée, which completely filled the Bösendorfer Saal. But the expectations that had been raised to the highest were immediately and alarmingly dashed when the singer appeared and gave a cosy little speech, which kept him from being judged according to the usual measuring stick for concerts.”6“Mit ungeheurer Reklame ward das erste hiesige Auftreten des ‘schwedischen Troubadours’ Sven Scholander angekündigt, sogar ein Ausspruch Kaiser Wilhelm II., den der originelle Sänger angeblich besonders entzückte, in den Zeitungen und auf den Concertzetteln wiederholt citirt, um nur recht viel Publikum anzulocken. Das gelang denn auch, und war es eine überaus elegante, in den glänzendsten Toiletten erschienene Gesellschaft, welche am 27. März 1897, von Sven Scholander’s erster Liedersoirée angezogen, den Saal Bösendorfer vollständig füllte. Aber die aufs Höchste gespannten Erwartungen wurden sofort bedenklich herabgestimmt, als der Sänger erschien und sich in einer gemüthlichen Ansprache dagegen verwahrte, mit dem gewöhnlichen Concertmaassstab [sic] gemessen zu werden.”
In contrast, London apparently did not take Scholander seriously: “Laughter at Bechstein Hall on June 14th  greeted M. Sven Scholander, the Danish [sic] lute player, during his song recital. It was occasioned, not by what he said, but by the way he said it. In a series of really interesting old Danish songs, the settings written specially for the lute, M. Scholander went through extraordinary antics. It was interesting as regards the instrument used (an old twelve-string lute) and the quaint old songs and sentiment.”7“The Art of the Month,” The cremona : with which is incorporated The violinist, a record of the string world, Vol. 1, no. 8, (Jul 1907): 91.
Robert Kothe’s performances were considered more serious and genuine than Scholander’s, at least by German critics. His stated goal was to bring old German folksongs dating as far back as 500 years into daily life. No one knew these songs any more, he claimed. Max Steinitzer described him as a beloved counterpart to Scholander for the more educated and artistic types.8…“allbeliebtes, durchaus gesellschaft fähiges Gegenstück zu dem genial urwüchsigen, mehr das “Volk” der Gegenwart persönlich verkörperten Scholander. “…bei Kothe führt der Takt des hochgebildeten Menschen und Künstlers die Muse ihren Weg.” His lute acc. “Geben Wohlklang und geistreiche harmonische, ja sogar kontrapunktische Arbeit, ohne jemals gesucht zu wirken.” “Seine Meisterschaft in Charakterisieren der Volksthümlichen ist unerreicht mit dem vornehmen Takt…Robert Kothe bedeutet in der Musikwelt einen großen Sieg der Einheit von menschlicher und künstlicher Edelart über die Geringfügigkeit der äußeren Mittel.” Max Steinitzer, Meister des Gesangs (1920), 195-97.
Critics were skeptical at the time of his first concerts about any claims to authenticity: he added accompaniments with modern harmonies to the old German folk song melodies, and his lute-playing technique seemed to be interchangeable with the guitar’s.
Another problematic aspect was how Kothe thought he could revive folk songs by performing them in a formal concert setting. If a singer with a lute/guitar could entertain in the home, by definition it could not be appropriate for a concert hall.
The rise of the völkisch folksong
Scholander and Kothe were important to folksong movements at the beginning of the twentieth century. They offered an emancipation from the phenomenally popular piano, and opened up opportunities for music making. For instance, what could be more appropriate and natural than to sing folksongs outside, perhaps while taking nature hikes with other healthy young Germans? Kenneth Sparr notes:
“Scholander’s immense success, particularly in Germany, as a singer to the lute certainly contributed to the later Wandervogel movement, which grew particularly in Germany but also in Denmark during in the first decades of the twentieth century. For this movement the lute with a guitar tuning was indispensable.”9Kenneth Sparr, “Remarks on an Unnoticed Seventeenth-Century French Lute in Sweden, the Swedish Lute (Svenskluta or Swedish Theorbo) and Conversions of Swedish Lutes,” The Galpin Society Journal 62 (2009): 209-07.
The lack of scholarship about Scholander and Kothe surely has to do with their connection to later trends that were taken up by right-wing nationalistic groups, which were then absorbed into Nazi party organisations. What exactly to make of these connections is a very difficult question, and what the lessons of twentieth-century music and nationalism teach can vary, depending on whom you ask.
The folksong cabaret?
Besides my confusion about the claims to authenticity by these lute singers, I am having difficulty understanding the simultaneous use of the lute/guitar in the cabaret setting. The very first German cabaret, modelled on those in Paris, was established in Munich in 1901. The “Elf Scharfrichter” or “Eleven Executioners” included Robert Kothe, who sang folksongs, but in other numbers wore a Pierrot costume and parodied pretentious theater pieces.10Kothe describes this in his memoirs, Saitenspiel des Lebens. Schicksal und Werk (München: Knorr & Hirth, 1944), 70-100. I also found information in Harold B. Segel, Turn of the Century Cabaret (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).Another lute singer was Elsa Laura von Wolzogen, wife of Ernst von Wolzogen, who organised the first Berlin cabaret in 1901, the “Überbrettl.”
A critic in Die Musik argued in 1909 that “Songs to the lute are becoming too prominent. They only really work in the Variéte, the cabaret, or the salon.”11“Der Gesang zur Laute drängt sich wohl zu sehr in den Vordergrund. Er paßt eigentlich nur ins Variété, das Kabarett oder den Salon.” Die Musik XII.3 (1909): 248.